By Richard H. Cracroft
Accompany me through a selection of recent books written by or about BYU alumni, all suitable for inclusion on your Christmas book gift list. There are, sitting and reclining all about you, those bookish souls who, like me, could probably not survive a book-less Yuletide. Don’t test them. Rather, ask yourself: How better to escape long, dark winter evenings than to soar on the wings of a good book? I offer the following as some possible choices for the discriminating book giver, choices certainly superior to (bug-ridden) partridges in (forlorn) pear trees, ten (absurd) lords-a-leaping, or five (useless) golden rings. As the sagacious poet declares, “A book’s the Happy Thing/Wherewith to make one’s Christmas spirits sing!” (Richard de Craicourt).
My personal first choice for this year’s list is Marathon of Faith, by Rex Lee and Janet Lee, with Jim Bell (Deseret Book, 1996, $15.95). That I (with so many of you) rubbed shoulders in several capacities and over three decades with Rex Lee (who died on March 11, 1996) explains only part of the reason why this well-written personal narrative keeps resonating through my mind. This book succeeds not only because it is so unblinkingly honest, but because it is one of those books which, like John Donne’s church bell, “tolls for thee” and me.
The Lees (aided by the editorial savvy of Brigham Young Magazine editor Jim Bell, who reluctantly relented to my including this book in my review) craft a spare but expressive book intended “to convey,” Sister Lee writes, “something of the universality of suffering which binds together all of humanity in ways that our individual pleasure cannot.” Alternating in expressive their responses to President Lee’s nine-year struggle with cancer, Janet and Rex probe the Mortal Paradox–that it is from pain and suffering (which we shun), and not from pleasure (which we seek) that we gain experience, understanding, and growth (which we will one day cherish).
Their reflections on their shared adventure in mortal growth, refracted through undimmed faith, enable readers to anticipate their own inevitabilities with increased clarity and resolution. Rex Lee learned “to play with the cards I was dealt,” which turns out to be a full house of acceptance, adaptation, vision, courage, and tenacity, connected by faith. Spiritual pragmatists and realists, the Lees, at each stage of his illness, recognize increasing limitations, acknowledge shrinking horizons, and undertake to seize control of what is yet seizable. Then, refocusing their objectives, this remarkable duo disciplined themselves to phenomenal accomplishment–brushing aside pity and sympathy to Carry On. Their Book of Life is an honest and faithful record of how a good man, hand-in-hand with a good woman, faces death. And it closes with Janet Lee’s restrained yet moving “Epilogue,” which will resound through your soul, as it did mine, less like a sigh than a Great Amen.
I wholeheartedly recommend for all LDS readers Lucile C. Tate’s Boyd K. Packer, A Watchman on the Tower (Bookcraft, 1995, $15.95), which I read only lately and was moved by this restrained biography of a principled Watchman on the Tower, a devoted man of God who has consistently, thoughtfully and spiritually heeded the Holy Spirit in crafting a focused, dedicated, and Christ-centered life. His life blesses ours.
Very different from these two books, but culturally important in this Utah Statehood Centennial year, is Marian Robertson Wilson’s biography of her father, Leroy Robertson: Music Giant from the Rockies (Freethinker Press, 1996, $14.95). Robertson was for many years Utah’s most renowned composer. The culmination of his long and productive career as professor of music at BYU and, later, the University of Utah, came in 1947, when he won the $25,000 Reichhold Symphonic Award for the Western Hemisphere. Although Robertson’s compositions are seldom heard anymore, his “Oratorio from the Book of Mormon,” premiered by his close friend Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, is a standing memorial to Robertson’s service to his Church and his native State of Utah.
Another engaging biography is John Wayne, American (New York: Free Press, 1995, $27.50), by BYU alumnus James S. Olson, professor of history at Sam Houston State University (and LDS Area Authority in Texas), with co-author Randy Roberts. In this first serious biography of Marion M. Morrison aka John Wayne (1907–1979), Roberts and Olson show that Wayne remains “the most important American of our time,” a popular icon in whom “middle America saw itself, its past, and its future,” and “his country’s alter ego”(viii).
In Second Crop (BYU Studies, 1996, $12.95), BYU professor emeritus John Sterling Harris presents the poetic gleanings of the two decades since harvesting his first crop of poems in Barbed Wire (1974; reprinted 1993). In this latest selection, Harris convincingly claims a place among the best contemporary poets of the American West. Corralling commonplace Western and technical images, from barbed wire to Colt .45 revolvers, he follows the “type and shadow” dynamics of his Mormon faith, which proclaims that “all things . . . are spiritual,” and soars to spiritual truths both human and transcendent, in poetry which, like Robert Frost’s, “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
A recent cluster of important books trumpet remarkable evidences of the Lord’s “strange act” of saint-making in the European missions of the Church. Bruce A. Van Orden tells that 150 year history for the first time in Building Zion: The Latter-day Saints in Europe (Deseret Book, 1996, $19.95). Mission by mission and era by era, Van Orden unfolds, in story after story, the history of every European mission through 1995. Then, in Faith Rewarded: A Personal Account of Prophetic Promises to the East German Saints, From the Journal of Thomas S. Monson (Deseret Book, 1996, $14.95), President Monson tells us how this “strange act” came to pass in the former German Democratic Republic. For 28 years President Monson supervised the European missions of the Church, including the branches behind the Iron Curtain. By presenting excerpts from his personal journal, we are able to follow, up close, how the Lord uses His sons and daughters to bring to pass the “marvelous work and a wonder” that is the Church in (the former) East Germany. President Monson’s prophecy, pronounced in his 1975 apostolic rededication, that “every blessing any member of the Church enjoyed in any other country would be theirs,” is abundantly fulfilled. Then, in Behind the Iron Curtain: Recollections of Latter-day Saints in East Germany, 1945-1989 (BYU Studies, 1996, $15.95), Garold N. Davis and Norma S. Davis, BYU professors of German and Humanities and the first American missionary couple to serve in the GDR, collect, translate, and edit the memoirs of 31 German Latter-day Saints. They group these remarkable accounts of hardship, endurance and faith-rewarded into four periods: The Bombing of Dresden, Rebuilding Zion, Living with the Communists, and A Brighter Day. Now, the publication of The Morning Breaks: Stories of Conversion and Faith in the Former Soviet Union (1996, $15.95) unveils the Lord’s “marvelous work and a wonder” among the Latter-day Saints in Russia and the Ukraine. Howard L. Biddulph, the first president of the Kiev, Ukraine Mission, 1991–1994, has collected and edited a number of remarkable conversion stories which not only chronicle, with these other acts of the Latter-day apostles and disciples, the Lord’s micro management of His children and His servants, but foretell the inevitability of sooner-than-later restoration of the gospel in every nation.
I conclude this book givers checklist with quick mentions of several worthwhile books for the various readers in your life, including yourself: Faces of Utah: A Portrait, edited by Shannon R. Hoskins (Peregrine Smith, 1996), is a Utah Statehood Centennial commemorative collection of essays, personal narratives, photographs, and illustrations. Maurine Jensen Proctor and Scot Facer Proctor present, in The Gathering: Mormon Pioneers on the Trail to Zion (Deseret Book, 1996, $49.95), the fourth in their now-familiar photographic essay series–this on the LDS Gathering to Zion-in-the-Wasatch. Susan Evans McCloud’s latest novel, Sunset Across India (Bookcraft, 1995, $14.95), is a historical/romance/ adventure about a woman who, pulled between Indian and British culture, finds peace in Mormonism. Richard Siddoway’s novella, The Christmas Wish (Bookcraft, 1996, $5.95), is the story of a grandson’s happy insights into the life of his late grandfather after his grandmother’s troubling discovery in her husband’s journal of a mysterious “Lillian.” AndKeeping Christmas: Stories from the Heart (Deseret Book, 1996) features 24 Christmas memories by beloved emeritus General Authorities, General Auxiliary leaders, and a handful of prominent LDS writers (bright lights with lesser voltage). Book Lovers, I give you bookish joy this Christmas tide!
Richard H. Cracroft is a professor of English at BYU and director of the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature.